No Magic Bullet In Iraq

Ken AshfordIraqLeave a Comment

Of late, there seems to be more willingness on the part of, well, everybody, to admit that the Iraq War is unwinnable, and indeed, it may already be lost.  Even Kissinger put his toe in that pool.  It strikes me that there is, too, that there is no way to "win" in Iraq  (in part because nobody has bothered to explain what victory in Iraq looks like).  But I think we have to accept some truisms, which Suzanne Nossel puts together nicely:

After a few posts about how progressives can build on their recent successes at the polls, readers have had frustration with my inadequate prescriptions for Iraq policy. Well, I fess up. I can’t promise to solve this any more than the Administration, the Congress, the military or the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group can. But for those who demand more, here’s what I can say on how I see the situation and what we do next:

1. The scenarios where maintaining current troop levels and adopting various political strategies pay off by producing greater stability seem wildly far-fetched – In short, its tough to imagine a regional conference, a new political bargain among Sunni and Shiite, the involvement of Syria and Iran, an oil trust, the partitioning of Iraq or any of the other steps talked about producing a sustainable agreement that will quell the Iraqi factions and militias. Not least of the problems is that with our credibility crisis and the Iraqi military’s wholesale failings, there’s no one obvious to police a ceasefire assuming one could be reached. In short, it doesn’t look like anything that could be tried at this stage stands a reasonable shot of "working."

2. Talk of a US pullout to put pressure on the Iraqis to "get their act together" simply wont work – Its become very popular to pledge efforts to force Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki and others to take control of their country and wean themselves from over-dependence on US troops. This is the equivalent of deciding to close down the homeless shelter so that residents will finally just go out and find themselves jobs and apartments. The reasons are rooted in a tangle of political hurdles, legitimate fears, and probably some personal limitations among the Iraqi leadership, but bottom line is: the Iraqis can’t and won’t manage to stem the fighting on their own in the short term.

3. At least in the near-term, if US troops pull out, conditions on the ground in Iraq will probably get worse in terms of lives lost – There are conflicting figures about how many people are dying daily in Iraq, but whether there are 100 or 300 violent deaths a day, the numbers could go up and with the absence of any force capable of maintaining order, its reasonable to expect that they will. There are plenty of other risks associated with a pull-out, including the spillover of violence into regions of Iraq that are currently quiet, the encouragement of al-Qaeda to turn the country into a new stomping ground, and the emboldening of a potentially incorrigible Iran.

4. Putting in more US troops seems untenable at this point, and there’s no evidence it would help – Not much more to say on this. It’s untenable both for political reasons and because we don’t have the troops available (which ties back to the political reasons, but is also an independent constraint). When we infused Baghdad with more troops, conditions worsened. When he testified on before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, General Abizaid offered no hope that more troops was the answer.

5. The US needs to be seen to try everything to end the crisis and exit responsibly – From a moral perspective and in terms of our international legitimacy, no matter what we do the fate of Iraq will be on our hands in the eyes of the Iraqi people and the world. While that doesn’t mandate an indefinite commitment to a strategy that’s manifestly failing, it does mean that reasonable suggestions – the regional conference, the involvement of Iran and Syria – must be pursued even if the chances of their working are remote. This does not mean that we need to sustain current troop levels until these avenues have been exhausted.

6. The US cannot confidently or credibly pick a winner among the Iraqi political factions – Some analysts suggest that in order to quell Iraq, the US should side with a faction – there are arguments favoring both Sadr, the Baathists, and other individual militant groups – and help them fight to the finish to defeat their opponents are assert stable rule. Unfortunately, our track record of picking foreign political horses in Vietnam, Latin America, Iraq (remember Chalabi?) and elsewhere is dismal. This strategy stands to potentially deepen Iraq’s crisis and – by attempting to impose a leader hand-picked in Washington – erode whatever remaining credibility we have built up as a result of Iraq’s lurch toward democracy.

7. Folding Iraq into a broader quest for Middle East peace won’t solve the crisis any quicker – There’s been talk that because the Iraqi insurgency may be fueled in part by frustrations over the plight of the Palestinians, resolution of the conflict ought to be enveloped in a broader strategy for peace in the region, including principally between Israel and the Palestinians. But wrapping Iraq’s fate around an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is hardly a sure path to swift resolution. On a political note, suggesting that Iraq’s fate is somehow inextricably linked to the broader Middle East peace process could become an excuse for the Administration to throw up their hands, averting blame for a regional standoff that no prior President has been able to resolve.

8. The effort to train Iraqi troops and police is failing – This is hard to face up to, but after years of effort and continued reports like this, its hard to deny. That’s not to say the training effort is a waste, or couldn’t be strengthened, but rather that the idea of withdrawing significant troop numbers and simultaneously beefing up the training effort will not significantly buttress Iraq’s ability to fend for itself.

9. If we don’t begin a planned exit, there’s a good chance we’ll find ourselves in an unplanned one – Its surprising that by now we haven’t experienced the Iraqi equivalent of the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut or the dragging of a corps of an American soldier through the streets of Mogadishu a decade later. But it seems likely that that day will come.

With that in mind, Suzanne lays out the "exit strategy":

In short, develop a withdrawal scenario that includes whatever steps can reasonably be taken to minimize the chaos in our wake. A regional conference, talks with Syria and Iran, improved training and reconstruction efforts, political mediation and efforts to bolster the security of less violent regions should all be part of the package. To the extent we can engage Iraq’s neighbors as well as any other global powers who are willing to step up to the plate and help us and Iraq, we should. We should be honest with ourselves and with the Iraqis about what we are doing and why, acknowledging all of the above rather than pretending that we’re handing off a country that’s in better shape than it is. But we should commit to getting out of there regardless of how the diplomacy and mediation progress.

Our exit should be as responsible and forthright as our entrance was wanton and misleading. The best thing we can promise troops who are now being asked to put their lives at risk for an all-but-declared failure is that they are taking risks to enable the US to make the best out of a terrible situation, preserving what can be saved of both Iraqi stability (in geographic pockets) and of American credibility. Its by no means the mission they signed up for, but its an important one nonetheless.

Sounds right to me.